Reproductive healthcare is the foundation of gender equality!

Reproductive healthcare is the foundation of gender equality!

Oct 28, 2020, 7:20:14 PM UTC
Without safe and equal access to contraceptives for all, women’s sexual health and freedom will remain under siege.

Reproductive healthcare is the foundation of gender equality!

Photo of Mihaela Siritanu - Volt Europa

During the ongoing pandemic, access to sexual healthcare has taken a hit. Not only that, we can see from this week's developments in Poland that the issues are deeper, and that regressive forces are emboldened by the times. The sexual health debate must be revitalised, and beyond continuing the fight for women’s inalienable rights to bodily autonomy and abortion, the systemic inequality on the contraceptive market must be addressed. Without safe and equal access to contraceptives for all, women’s sexual health and freedom will remain under siege.

2020 will go down in history as the year of the COVID-19 pandemic. All over the globe, we watch our leaders try to live up to their roles by making difficult choices and prioritizing needs. In the name of executive power and swift action, we watch our rights become less essential and societies become more vulnerable.

While the pandemic forced health care systems to triage resources and cancel nonessential procedures, women’s access to sexual and reproductive health care - even in otherwise liberal countries - took a hit. With staff shortages, reassignments and an overall need to minimise exposure to potential COVID-19 infections, services such as contraception and abortion were not deemed essential.

While the disease doesn't discriminate, women end up bearing the brunt of the pandemic’s secondary effects. In countries all over the world, regardless of culture, religion and socio-economic development, women are more likely to experience domestic violence, disproportionate childcare responsibility and diminished access to healthcare, as a direct effect of this extraordinary catastrophe.

Depending on the country of residence, some may trust that this backsliding is a temporary issue, as the pandemic plays out. This confidence however,  is a luxury women simply cannot afford. In countries such as Poland, Malta or the USA, women’s reproductive rights are under siege, and governments still debate women’s bodily autonomy. Now with the tragic and untimely passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, we can expect another round of attempting to undermine the legality of abortion in the country claiming to ‘lead the free world.’

Abortion is often discredited by being diminished to a mere contraception method with precarious repercussions. Abortion however, is not and has never been that.  Rather, it is a course of action to be considered after all contraception has failed.  Governments must stop debating a last resort that should inalienable belong to the affected women, and instead work to provide safe and easy-access contraception to all.

The most common contraceptive used in Europe remains the pill (21%) which unfortunately impacts women`s quality of life  and reduces their wellbeing.  In a study done by Guttmacher Institute, women from 52 countries were asked about their reasons for not using contraception. Surprisingly, only 3% listed access as a barrier to contraception, while the most common reason listed by 26% of the women surveyed, was side effects or health risks.

The Bayer Group, the biggest contraceptive producer in Europe, settled more than 18,000 EU and US lawsuits alleging that the company’s birth-control pills Yaz and Yasmin, caused potentially life-threatening blood clots, gallbladder problems, as well as heart attacks and strokes. According to DrugWatch, by early 2016, Bayer signed off on $2 billions worth of settlements in the U.S. alone, with more claims pending internationally. The reason these pills remain on the market despite their side effects is that the respective risks of suffering blood clots, weight gain, mood swings and similar complications are much higher during pregnancies. That might seem reasonable, but the logic isn’t applied equally.

Which brings us to the issue of male contraceptives. Over the years, several attempts have been made at developing a male birth control pill - unfortunately unsuccessfully, even though the side effects were similar in nature and severity, when compared to those available for women. This double standard is caused by the fact that the risk-benefit analyses of the respective pills are constructed differently. For women’s pills, the side effects are compared to the risks of similar symptoms when pregnant. On the male side, the health risks are compared to their well-being without the pill. While this might seem a reasonable excuse, it is not. The implication of this double standard is that pregnancy is a woman’s normal state of being, and that the issue of contraception is an issue for women to shoulder alone. It relegates the issue of bodily autonomy to have to be fought for by women, and as women are still underrepresented in politics, this fight will continue to tread water.

By making contraceptives available for the entire population, not only women, sexual and reproductive health will be less vulnerable to system shocks such as COVID-19. By safeguarding legal and safe access to contraception, and ultimately to abortion, women can be the misstresses of their own fate in ways previously unimagined. Without such bodily autonomy, women will not be able to obtain education, fight for wage equality or equal representation. Access to contraception is certainly one of the most important, and might well be the most important revolution in women’s rights. It provides a bedrock which we must not take for granted, or so much feminist progress in so many different areas of society, might be lost to us.

Written by Mihaela Siritanu

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